Working Motherhood: Is It A Choice?

When I worked as a college counselor, my students would often get frustrated because they felt as if they weren’t in control of their college admissions process.  “I don’t have any choices,” they would say.  “The colleges are making the decision for me.”  Whether the kid had a straight A average or whether the kid was at the very bottom of the class, my response was always the same.  Namely, I told them that they were wrong.  Actually, I would say, you have a lot of choices.  For one thing, you’re choosing the colleges to which you’re applying.  It’s not like a college is just going to up and reject you if you didn’t ask them to consider admitting you in the first place.  And if you really want to get macro about it, I would say, you’re choosing to go to college.  You don’t have to.  There isn’t a law that requires it.  Oh, Ms. Green, they would whine, sounding not unlike my five year-old.  Of course we have to go to college.  That’s not a choice.    But it is, I always reminded them.  It may not feel like it is because your parents are telling you that you have to, or because it would be hard to get a good job without doing so.  And I never said that not going would be an easy choice to make, especially if your parents are threatening to cut you off and you have no other source of income.  But nonetheless, it is a choice.  



The reason I mention this is because lately, I’ve realized that the same principle applies to working mothers.  Now, for the sake of this discussion, let’s all agree that I’m not talking about single working mothers who are living at or below the poverty line.  I’m talking about middle to upper-middle class working moms who work full time because they feel like they have to in order to pay the bills every month.  I’m also talking about myself.  I don’t know about you, but I have often felt trapped by work, both before and after I had children.  I’ve spent many nights feeling sorry for myself, wishing that my husband made more money so that I could just quit, and I’ve often found myself wondering what it must feel like to just live in peace, free of work-related pressures, deadlines and anxieties.  I’d be happier, I tell myself.  I’d be less stressed, I’d be nicer to my kids, and to my husband.  I’d be thinner, that’s for sure.  And yeah, yeah, I know I’d be bored, and unsatisfied, and it would get old after three days, but still…sometimes work is down right suffocating, and sometimes I have fantasies about getting into a car accident that is not quite bad enough to cause any permanent damage, but just bad enough to land me in the hospital for four weeks with strict orders to do NO WORK WHATSOEVER, and sometimes I just wish that I could forget the whole damn thing and give up on this stupid book I’m writing and give up on this column and just QUIT.  But I can’t, because even though I don’t make that much money, I make enough for us to need it, and so therefore working is not a choice, it’s something I have to do, and quitting is not an option.   




The whole concept of "choice" is a complex one when you start talking about motherhood and working to support your family. Even though I technically have a choice to work as I do, I truly feel that I don't have a choice.

I am the primary breadwinner in our household, and I don't want to be. But if I didn't work, we wouldn't have healthcare. We wouldn't have a roof over our heads--we couldn't afford to even rent in our area, let alone buy another home, so we'd probably have to live with my parents. We wouldn't be able to afford a decent car. We would be living at or under the poverty line. We'd all be miserable--especially me, as I'd feel like I'd forced us into poverty by being selfish and giving up my job. Doesn't matter that that isn't the case. I just know I couldn't be happy taking care of my kids AND being in poverty.

So I "choose" to work. I "choose" to keep my kids out of poverty. I "choose" to not use welfare or food stamps or Medicaid. I "choose" to ensure my kids have food (organic even!), healthcare, clean clothes, a nice neighborhood to live in.

Although I don't like this choice that I feel I'm forced to make, I do like knowing that it's my work that keeps my family alive. It's my paycheck that lets us have a decent life. It's my intelligence that allows us to not live in poverty, as DH did growing up.

It's not a pretty choice, but it's mine. And I'm proud of it. Thanks for reminding me that working is part of what makes me a great mom.


I'm brand new to this site.
I don't have a husband.
I'm sort of like that comic a la lichenstein where the woman slaps her head and says "I forgot to get married!"
It's never been an option to rely on anyone else to support me and my child. I do get regular child support from my son's father - which basically covers child care. I must provide health insurance, mortgage payment, etc. I do live in a very expensive area (Boston) and I actually don't know any couple who can afford to have an at-home mom, although I know a few who work 3-4 days/week. I'm not sure what constitutes a "luxury", but to me it's HBO and the DVR - extras that I really don't have to have but that make my life a little nicer.
For those of you who do have husbands - what about them? What do they see as choices in their lives?


I think the choice thing works both ways. I hear women say they cannot work because daycare is so expensive or it is too hard with 2-3 kids and getting them to/from school and activities. Maybe they really just want to be home with their kids, but feel like it is not acceptable to whomever they are talking to. I hear women at work who say they wish they could be home when I think they really like working, but feel like they should want to be home.

I think Risa's point was that there are so many factors that go into whatever choice you make. I say we should all own our choices and stop defending them.

I work from home, but my kids aren't here.

On a side note, I discovered a new downside to working from home. My cat caught a mouse in my garage last night and brought it into my house. It is in here somewhere with me right now. My husband gets home from a business trip tonight....not a moment too soon.


justice fergie

Keeping in mind that Risa was not referring to those who DO have to work in order to literally keep a roof over their heads, provide health insurance for their families, and/or or remain above the pvoerty line, I have to agree with her.

I'm in the exact same position. I could quit. But I'd have to sacrifice a lot of the luxuries that I think I "need." When it comes down to it, I really DO have a choice. I'm just too scared (spoiled?) to make the other one.


Ms. Green has such a good way of expressing, in a thoughful way, the dilemma when work is a "choice" for her and many like her. She and others work because of the "choice" to live in an expensive city, the "choice" to send kids to private preschool, the "choice" to have the extras, and the "choice" to work for the sake of work. I am not sure that "momtofeisty" gives the author enough credit for acknowledging how lucky she is to have "the choice" and how those who are not in the middle to upper-middle class simply do not have the luxury of choice (sorry for the double negative). I am not sure the author deserved the "sneaky" or "underhanded" characterization, especially when she admits she is not addressing the entire population of working mothers. However, good points were brought up by "momtofeisty" and good perspective was shown as to those that simply do not have the luxury of "choice" regarding working. Many in this country are "hand to mouth" and work is a necessity and I feel that Ms. Green does not take away from that part of the working population of mothers/parents. For what it's worth, those are my 2 cents.


What is so great about this column is that the writer has a unique ability to thoughtfully sum up what a lot of people are thinking. Her honesty is refreshing and helpful to those of us that are struggling with how to make sense of our working mother angst. For those that really do have some kind of "choice," while the conflicts may not be life threatening or those that impact whether food will get on the table, they are nonetheless very real and have a significant impact on the woman struggling with them and her family.

MichiganMom (not verified)

I don't think that Risa was trying to dis anyone based on their decisions to work or not to work. All she is saying is that there are choices we make in life based on our own situations and circumstances. She isn't saying one is right or wrong. Only that it is a personal choice for us alone to make.


This article really confuses me. I am not at all sure where the author is going with this. Are you saying that working women should stop complaining because after all, we all do pretty much have a choice to work? Because A. living in poverty isn't much of a choice and B. For some women the choice isn't just a less "comfortable" lifestyle, it's bankruptcy and homelessness.

I agree with Very Tired. The situation you're describing is one I'm sure many women are in but not the situation for our family. If I don't work, we don't have health insurance because my husband is ineligible for benefits at his employer (he's a contractor). We cannot get private health insurance - we tried. And anyone who's seen "Sicko" knows what the consequences of not having insurance (or even good insurance) are.

I am puzzled by this statement:
"I’ve spent many nights feeling sorry for myself, wishing that my husband made more money so that I could just quit, and I’ve often found myself wondering what it must feel like to just live in peace, free of work-related pressures, deadlines and anxieties."
If you were not married and had no children you would still have to work to support yourself. Shouldn't it be the goal of all adults to have the ability, needed or not, to support oneself? I personally get a sense of pride out of being able to support my family and provide the insurance that we need so much. I don't think I would choose to stay home if I had a choice (I would choose to work fewer hours outside the house).

I have a number of friends who did make serious financial sacrifices to stay home with their kids. It's a major adjustment and many of them are not having much fun. That being said, they do take ownership of their choice and have told me that they feel in the long run the deprivations will be worth it. The working moms I know didn't even have a choice between a bare-bones lifestyle and working, it was "either I work or we don't eat/don't have a place to live/can't get health care." I don't think there are that many women out there who are choosing to work just so they can have the extras. For most of us it is do or die.
I don't think all articles about working motherhood need to champion working but this seems like kind of an underhanded, sneaky attack on "choosing" to work so you can have "extras" that I would expect to see on a site for SAHMs. I'm not sure this kind of "you do have a choice, so suck it up and get happy" message really helps working moms all that much, frankly. My $.02.

Very Tired

I appreciate your honesty about the luxury of your situation. Many of us wish we had the "choice" you do.


This is a great column. Risa gets that our choices often trap us into thinking they aren't choices at all. But they are, and for those of us lucky enough to be able to choose, it's important to realize that not every working mother can.